A new sense of purpose

Print edition : March 31, 2001

The Tehelka revelations enabled the AICC(I) to hold a successful plenary session in Bangalore, but will Sonia Gandhi be able to implement the decisions and achieve the goals set?

VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in Bangalore

WILL it be a case of one step forward and two steps backward? This was one of the questions that worried a section of Congress(I) activists, including senior leaders, as they returned from Bangalore after the 81st session of the All India Congress Commit tee (AICC). The party was upbeat as the session was held in the backdrop of the Tehelka revelations and the Opposition outcry in Parliament and outside demanding the resignation of the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) governmen t. There was also unanimity in the view that the Congress(I) had, at the session, positioned itself politically and ideologically in such a manner that it could work out an alliance with other Opposition parties including the Left. But did all this add u p to a strategic perspective that was good enough to achieve the immediate and larger objectives of the AICC, which, as stated by party president Sonia Gandhi, included liberating the country from the shackles of the "shameful, corrupt and communal" NDA government and restoring to the party its past glory?

The lack of perspective became evident when the much-touted action plan for an agitation against the government, announced in New Delhi a day after the AICC session concluded, had only the Congress(I) in its focus. The plan was intended to achieve the im mediate objective of liberating the country from NDA rule. However, as party leaders pointed out, the Congress(I) could have given a greater impetus to the plan had it been more broad-based. The leadership should have opted for a joint Opposition moveme nt and called upon leaders of other Opposition parties to work this out. The interests of realpolitik would have been served better that way. The current plan lays too much hope on events unfolding positively for the Congress(I) on the strength of a mass agitation. A party leader said that what the action plan showed was that the dominant sections of the party leadership, including Sonia Gandhi, did not have a real understanding of how to go about forging a coalition at the national level, although the need for this, as opposed to the Congress(I)'s favourite theory of one-party rule, was acknowledged theoretically at the Bangalore plenary. Whatever the merits of this assessment, it is clear that the advice given at the AICC session by certain sections of the party was not received eagerly by the national leadership.

In fact, two senior leaders gave suggestions on how to achieve the immediate objective - become proactive and forge alliances. Former Union Minister and leader from Karnataka M. Hanuman-thappa stated that merely passing political resolutions on the crime s of the NDA government was not enough for the people, particularly Congress(I) workers. "What they are looking for is praxis. They want the ouster of the NDA government, which is headed by people who caused the downfall of Rajiv Gandhi on the basis of m ere allegations. Here we should not be bothered too much about what would happen next. We should go in for proactive action," he said. Hanumanthappa's line was reflected in the views Chandrajit Yadav, the veteran leader from Uttar Pradesh. He averred tha t tactically the Congress(I) should contemplate forging broad alliances with forces such as the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in its fight against the communal BJP. These forces, he pointed out, represented particular sections of the downtrodden.

According to a small segment of delegates who supported this view, the problem of accepting the ground realities reflected a larger malady of perception as to how the party should go forward, which social class it should identify with and what its approa ch to vital issues should be. Leaders in this section pointed out that this manifested itself even in the political resolution presented at the AICC session. On the Ayodhya issue, the first draft stated that the Congress was not averse to the constructio n of a Ram mandir at Ayodhya, but that it was always against this being done by demolishing the Babri Masjid. This led to protests in private from delegates from Kerala, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, the States going to the polls. Hence, the final resoluti on stated that the Congress was not averse to the construction of a Ram mandir at Ayodhya but this should not be done at the spot where the Babri Masjid stood.

Those who agreed with Hanuman-thappa and Yadav pointed out that the lack of precision in formulating policy was the single most important factor that prevented the party from adopting a constructive and creative strategy. According to them, the session d id not deal much with the specifics of the movement against the NDA government and the formation of an alternative government at the Centre. All that the official party spokesperson stated was that the Congress(I) would not be found wanting in fulfilling its constitutional responsibility, if the situation at the centre warranted it. This did not mark any advance on the party's earlier position.

Undoubtedly, these views did not carry much weight at the session, basically because there was not a Rajesh Pilot or a Jitendra Prasada to advocate them. The official response, as expressed by leaders such as Moti Lal Vora and Ambika Soni, was that the C ongress(I) could not switch to a proactive mode at the cost of its identity and that an agenda of coalition and cooperation was best forged through mass movements. "We have launched a mass movement against the government. This will ultimately assimilate all sections of the people and all the major parties in the Opposition," Moti Lal Vora said.

The official version also held that recent cooperation between the Congress(I) and other Opposition forces, including the Left parties, particularly on economic issues like the Balco disinvestment, would aid this process. "The changes that we have made i n the thrust of our economic policy, with the Nehruvian Pranab Kumar Mukherjee and Mani Shankar Aiyar replacing Manmohan Singh and Jairam Ramesh as the key players in the economic think-tank, would naturally accentuate this cooperation," said a leader fr om Madhya Pradesh.

While these assumptions sound simplistic and far-fetched, there is no gainsaying the fact that the Tehelka revelations and the AICC session have indeed brought many gains to the Congress(I). Hardly a month ago the Congress(I)'s efforts to develop and imp lement an election strategy with other parties had turned out to be a difficult task, with regional parties such as the Trinamul Congress and the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) riding roughshod over the party. All that has changed now.

The force that has been really tamed in this situation is Mamata Banerjee's Trinamul Congress. In fact, until the Tehelka revelations the Trinamul Congress called the shots in West Bengal and virtually forced the Congress(I) State leadership to accept an alliance in which the BJP was also a participant. The Congress(I) was trying to work out means to be part of the Trinamul Congress-led alliance, without suffering the humiliation of becoming a partner of the BJP. It included a face-saving formula, that the Congress(I) align with the Trinamul Congress and fight the BJP in some seats. There was a major debate in the State and Central units of the party over whether this proposal was violative of party policy. The central leadership's earlier stance was t hat there can be "no truck with the Trinamul Congress as long as it is part of the NDA led by the communal BJP". The Tehelka revelations came when this debate was going on. Mamata Banerjee resigned from the Ministry and broke ranks with the BJP at the Ce ntre. Although Mamata's action was motivated by the realisation that she needed to distance herself from the disgraced constituents of the NDA, the real gainer was the Congress(I).

The situation is similar in Tamil Nadu, where the alliance between the Congress(I) and the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) has acquired a new vigour in the context of the Tehelka revelations and the new postures adopted at the AICC session.

But, obviously, the Congress(I) would be able to derive advantage from the return of these breakaway factions only if it shows the capability to make strikes that would propel both itself and its newfound allies to power in the States as well as in the C entre. As a senior CWC member pointed out, ultimately all questions boil down to gaining power which alone would fulfil the larger objective of regaining past glory.

The efforts to achieve this goal will indeed be a test of Sonia Gandhi's leadership qualities. Her actions less than a couple of months ago had shown that despite having the support of the rank and file she was overly cautious with regard to the many gro ups in the party. The nominations to the CWC, which preceded the AICC session, were a clear case in point. The feeling in the party about the nominations was that the Congress(I) president had completed a half-baked organisational restructuring.

However, the Tehelka revelations, the success of the AICC session and the enthusiasm it has generated in the Congress(I) ranks certainly offer Sonia Gandhi an opportunity to consolidate her position in the party and move forward. But will Sonia Gandhi be able to do that?

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